Darren Bailes grew up in Durham and got his first job in advertising at WCRS, where he met his writing partner, Al MacCuish. The pair moved to DDB for a brief spell before joining Mother in 2000. At Mother, they worked on campaigns for Pimm’s and PG Tips (featuring the comedian Johnny Vegas and his puppet, Monkey), among others.
The pair parted ways in 2008 when Bailes left to join VCCP as a creative director; he was later promoted to executive creative director. Under Bailes’ direction, VCCP has enjoyed a creative revival. It reversed the fortunes of Comparethemarket.com with its meerkat ads and this year has given O2 a new brand identity with the "be more dog" campaign.
We caught up with him at his country abode in Sussex.
At school, I used to do pencil drawings of horses’ muscle structures for hours on end. My friends used to think I was an idiot, but now they see that I’ve done all right out of it.
Both my parents went to art colleges. My dad used to paint old men in pubs and pictures of begonias.
I studied graphic design in my hometown, Durham. On a field trip, we visited an old student of ours, Geoff Turner at CDP. We pitched up in reception and were told he was in a restaurant having lunch and would be back in nine minutes. Not ten or five – it was way more specific than that. This amazed me.
I knew I wanted to get into advertising. There was one shop in the whole of the North-East where you could buy Campaign. It was in the Metrocentre. I often made the trip. Sad, I know.
The first ad that got me was the one for Carling with the squirrel that did the assault course to get a nut. It was that one and the Carling "dambusters" ad. That was when beer advertising was advertising.
As quick as I could, I headed to the big smoke – well, Reading. Berkshire College of Art had a reputation for teaching advertising but, by the time I got there, the advertising tutors had long gone and it was stamp and chocolate bar wrapper design for me. I had to take matters into my own hands.
I made contact with some wonderful people working in town. Liz and Dave at FCB, Anthony and James at Y&R. Despite their busy jobs making Sugar Puffs commercials, they took time out to help – they sent me briefs and wrote me letters of encouragement.
My first job was at WCRS. I stayed for five or six years and it was there that I teamed up with my old partner, Al MacCuish. Those were great times.
Eventually, we moved to DDB. It was the worst 18 months ever. We weren’t allowed to look at anyone else’s work and no-one spoke to one other. I wanted to do ambient media stuff at the time, but no-one wanted to hear about it. It wasn’t long before the mismatch became too apparent and we were asked not too politely to leave.
Mark Waites from Mother called us in for two weeks for a pitch and we ended up staying for seven years. The pitch was for a sports channel and it was against DDB. We won, which was just perfect.
Mark and Robert Saville kind of created us. Robert likes to say that he untaught us everything we knew and then reprogrammed us. We went from shiny ad boys to entertainers.
We just wanted to put stuff on the screen that had never been seen before. Some people study D&AD awards; I just like to watch TV – The X Factor, Pixar films. That’s how you should be thinking.
At Mother, we made work we were desperate to make. Work that was famous and your mum would love: Pimm’s, Orange, PG Tips, Miller, Yellow Pages.
At first, Mark and Robert thought the Pimm’s ad [starring Alexander Armstrong] was terrible. But it ended up running for five years and turned Pimm’s into one of Diageo’s strongest brands.
Mother was such a great time. They would just make things happen. They would give you permission to think bigger and wider than anyone else in the world. It was just amazing.
We would ask if there was enough of a story in an ad concept to make a movie. That was what we tried to do with the meerkat ads at VCCP.
As hard as it was to leave Mother, I needed a new challenge. Something to prove I could do this without the Mother name behind me. I was terrified, but VCCP seemed perfect.
Mother makes you quite anonymous because no-one gets credit for anything. When I was creating ads, I wanted to be part of a team; but when I was leading a team, I wanted to do it by myself. I’m trying to do for people what Rob and Mark did for us.
VCCP was a dusty train set. All the parts were there; it just needed a polish.
I’ve got a country house in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to get my kids out of London so they weren’t hanging around Westfield chewing gum.
VCCP moves fast and it’s so intense. So, at the weekend, I just want to surround myself with sheep and cows and stuff.
I would say the meerkat ads have been the most special for me. The meerkat campaign for Comparethemarket.com helped transform VCCP and its fortunes. And it’s still strong. Everyone thought it would be around for two weeks.
Right now, "be more dog" for O2 is the brief to work on. It has made a great start, but there is so much more to come. We were almost kicked out of O2 headquarters when we presented it, but we didn’t give up. And, to anyone starting in the industry now, that’s the most important thing. No-one will give you an easy ride.
Don’t expect anyone to help you. Some people will help you, but you have to be willing to do it yourself. You need the drive.
Advertising is a brilliant job. It’s harder and more complex than it ever was but, if you can get your head around it, then the world’s your oyster.
It’s such a privilege, what we do. Making stuff that plays out in The X Factor, the biggest TV show ever. So you better make sure it’s good and doesn’t pass people by. Nothing makes me angrier than bland.